Above and Beyond: The Iditarod Air Force
Not all the action in dogsled racing is on the ground.
- By John Phillips
- Air & Space magazine, January 2011
“Hey, land this thing right now,” I told the veteran Alaska bush pilot at the controls of a Cessna Skywagon that was boring into a headwind 300 feet above the frozen Yukon River.
“Yeah, well, the thing is,” the pilot replied, “it’s the skis, see? ’Cause I dunno how chunky it is down there.”
I didn’t know from chunky. My real frustration was that I’d been assigned to cover the 1999 Iditarod sled-dog race—1,131 miles, 26 checkpoints, 60 entrants, each towed by up to 16 Alaskan huskies—and I hadn’t talked to a musher in three days. And now, directly beneath us, was the race leader.
“Just land a half mile in front of him,” I said. “Then I’ll jump out and grab a two-minute interview.”
What happened next—or so the pilot later explained—was that, upon landing, the skis burst through a foot of “sugar snow,” then encountered a chunk of ice canted at a ramp-like angle that would have delighted Evel Knievel, given the distance it catapulted the Cessna. During that brief thrill ride, sunglasses, three-ring notebook, and roast beef sandwich broke free of gravity, climbing from the bottom of the windshield to the top.
When the musher caught up to us, he said only “Wow.” Meanwhile, I’d forgotten all the questions I’d intended to ask. “Well, take care,” I offered.
“Me take care?” he replied.
The pilot’s name was—well, let’s call him Mark. A member of the 30-aircraft Iditarod Air Force, he knew a lot of things. For instance: A musher’s ash sled costs $1,500, and his 16 dogs can be worth several thousand apiece. “Meaning what?” I asked.
“Meaning that, say, the team below us right now is worth more than a 1976 Cessna 180 Skywagon.”
On that 11-day March odyssey, I recall other highlights.
Day Five: Mark pointed to an airplane and said, “Look at that guy stuck in the snow. He’ll give it full power, then he’ll nose that thing prop-first into the ice, then onto its back.”
“Shouldn’t we try to help?” I asked.
“Nah,” Mark replied. “I like watching guys wreck equipment. Kinda like an object lesson for professionals, like farmers who stick their arms into giant threshing machines.” Disappointing us both, the pilot unstuck himself.
Right after our own takeoff from a checkpoint in Takotna, the Cessna briefly shuddered, then we heard some banging.
“Left ski,” Mark said. “Dislodged, flappin’ around down there.”
“Can we land?”
“Planes always land,” he said. “It’s their nature to land. Course, you got some leeway in how they land.”
It was our softest-ever touchdown. Mark glided in with the right wing dipped so that the left ski bore little of the initial impact. When it eventually struck the snow, however, the ski nearly ripped off, smacking the fuselage as it randomly pinwheeled astern. Still, I was impressed. “Nice job,” I said. “My Limping Nancy landing,” he replied.